The crowd moved along like a solid mass of people and I moved with it. It was taking me towards Oxford Circus station and that suited me well enough. ‘Might as well go with the flow,’ I thought to myself with ironic amusement ‘if it’s good enough for this lot, then why wouldn’t it be good enough for me?’ The difference was, of course, that everyone in the crowd knew where they were going and what they were doing, whilst I didn’t. That was a big difference – I seriously didn’t have a clue where I was headed or what on earth I was going to do when I got there. These were questions that I never even bothered to ask myself – I was so used to not knowing that it didn’t bother me anymore. It no longer seemed strange. They were all shopping, or going home after having successfully carried out their shopping. Some of them were perhaps meeting someone for a coffee or a meal, or going to see a film or a play perhaps, this being the West End. It was all the same anyway – all of those things were just things that people did. Normal people, that is.
Then again, it occurred to me, are they really any better off than me? Ok, granted, they are all admirably sure of themselves and eminently purposeful in their poise and in their deportment, but what the hell does that mean. It was all just a game and games – as I knew very well – weren’t in the least bit real. That was something I now understood with great clarity – games aren’t real…
Looking around me I had to admit that all the people around me were fantastically good at playing the game. Saying that they had it off to a fine art was seriously understating the matter – they were bloody brilliant. Each and every one of them deserved an Oscar for the way they were carrying it off. They really and truly looked as if they knew what they were about – the confidence on display all around me was flawless, incredible, brilliant, miraculous. They would fool anyone. Their performance not only would fool anyone, I realized, it did fool anyone. Anyone and everyone. And most importantly of all, perhaps, they fooled themselves. That was true of each person here I felt, each one of them had swallowed their own story hook, line and sinker. Plus thirty back-issues of the Anglers’ Times. What a staggering example of pure audacity, pure ‘chancing it’, pure bluff. What really got me is that I seemed to be the only one here who appreciated it – everyone else seemed oblivious, everyone else seemed to just take it all for granted.
This perplexed me. On the one hand I was sincerely impressed by anyone who could summon up the type of sheer brazen audacity necessary to pull off such a bluff, but on the other hand I was a hell of a lot less than impressed by the fact that the same person would go and swallow their own bluff in such an awe-inspiringly dumb fashion. It was as if the person concerned would be both the world’s greatest confidence trickster and the world’s greatest mark, the world’s greatest sucker, at the same time. As I looked around me I didn’t know whether to feel admiration or disgust. As it happened I didn’t feel either – a wave of exhaustion suddenly came upon me and as a result my interest in the outside world started to wane. All of a sudden I felt very, very tired and very, very weak, and I just didn’t have the energy to have the luxury of feeling anything. Or even thinking anything. I just kind of noted the fact of the unconscious theatrical virtuosity of all the people in the crowd around and didn’t make anything of this. I was now back into basic survival mode, and the best thing I could do at the moment, it seemed to me, was to find some way to get off the merry-go-round, and find somewhere to rest up. I remembered, from when I used to spend time hanging around all the little side-streets situated in that zone which exists between Tottenham Court Rd and Shaftsbury Avenue that there was a pleasant but tiny public garden somewhere not to far from here, a little square of shrubs and lawn with old-fashioned wrought iron benches all around the perimeter. For some reason I had good memories of this particular spot – I remember sitting there on warm summer afternoons, feeling the sun on my skin, watching the world go by and experiencing some semblance of peace as I did so.
Had it been genuine, honest-to-goodness peace that I had experienced there, or had it just been some species of simulation, a mere chemical analogue? I don’t really know, but what I do know is that it was a hell of a lot better than what I was experiencing right now. Right now, if I were to be honest, I would have to admit that I don’t feel good at all. I know I said that walking was good for me, that it was a way in which I could somehow come back to myself and feel a bit better in myself, but not this time. The walking I was doing now was not that type of walking at all – what I was doing now was simply drifting for the sake of drifting. What I was doing now was akin to hitching a ride, I was hitching a ride with convenient currents of pedestrians, pretty much in the same way that a bird of prey would effortlessly ride a rising current of hot air, an ascending thermocline. Only, it occurred to me, a bird of prey like a hawk or an eagle riding a current of air was not the same at all because it was dignified, noble even, whilst what I was doing was neither noble nor dignified. What I was doing – and I was under no illusions here – was not so much noble or dignified as it was frankly bizarre, grotesquely fucked-up even. What I was doing was hitching a ride with people who were purposefully moving along so that I too could pass myself off, however temporarily, as being purposeful too. Only the truly fucked-up thing here was that I also knew damn well that their purposefulness was totally fake, totally made-up, whilst – presumably – they didn’t. So what kind of a jack-ass did that make me, I wondered. What kind of a screwed-up dysfunctional fuck-wit am I?
My thoughts, as usual, were not bringing me any peace. I thought a lot, but it never did me any good. Same old story, same old story. Everything I thought was futile, it occurred to me just then in a flash of insight, including the thought that everything I thought was futile. This meta-thought amused me somewhat, albeit in a rather malevolently self-mocking sort of a way. It was typical of me, really – a classic example of the type of painfully pointless circular thought processes that preoccupied me so much these days. I had flashes of what seemed like genuine insight, but what the insight showed me was not good at all. In fact it was very bad. Insight I’d rather not have. Perhaps I was experiencing a negative enlightenment, I mused – if such a thing was possible. And maybe even if it wasn’t possible, maybe I had somehow invented it, came the next thought, also darkly self-mocking. Maybe I had made it possible…
Action was what was needed here, not more thinking, it came to me then. With a major effort, marshaling what felt like my very last bit of energy, I took a grip on myself – I got a bit of focus. I cut out of the crowd determinedly, making for a side-street that I thought I recognized and before very long I found myself in the little garden that I had remembered, completely unchanged as far as I could see. Even the trees looked the same, though surely they would look a bit different at least after a gap of so many years. I went in through the little gate and sat down on one of the benches.
Strangely, this brought me instant peace. After god knows how many hours I had just spending wandering around, unable to find any rest, to sit down and feel a bit of peace was tremendous. It was an unexpected. I don’t know how long I had been sitting there, watching the steady stream of pedestrian traffic passing by on two sides of the island, when I recognized a face in the crowd. A solid-looking man, medium height, late thirties, clothes looking as he had been sleeping in them for a week, but looking well enough for all that. It was Manchester Dave, who I had known very well back in the days when I had been a pill-head. He had the same half-distracted but amused expression that he always had on him, and he didn’t appear to have aged a day.
Our eyes met. He grinned at me and waved from the other side of the railings. My first genuine bit of human contact for God knows how long. I had always liked Dave. I realized this in a rush, how much I had liked the guy. He had been real and vivid in some way that most of the other characters I had known somehow hadn’t been. But something was wrong. Something was wrong with this, I suddenly realized. Dave was dead, he had OD’d years ago up in Manchester. As he made his way through the little gate and walked towards him I said this to him. “You’re supposed to be dead, Dave. You are dead, Dave. What the fuck…?”
Manchester Dave looked even more amused than usual at this. “Nice to see you too, mate.” He laughed. “You shouldn’t listen to junkie’s gossip,” he advised me then with a frown, “Junkies are notoriously full of shit, as you ought to know…!
My first thought was that he might have something on him. I asked him and he shook his head. “No diconal today, I’m afraid…” he said with a short laugh that didn’t seem to have much in the way of humour in it. Dave had once been the Diconal King, once apon a time. He had been the man. The story was that he had a bent chemist who was supplying him with as much gear as he could move – every pill-head’s dream. Your very own chemist. Fuck. What more could you want? John interrupted my drug-orientated reverie. “Hey.” A serious look had come over his face. “Hey. I know it sounds strange, but I’ve got a message for you. From some strange old guy, dude with a real bad cough. Told me you’d be here… Dude told me to tell you that you have to look for the sign of the Golden Kebab, and not be wasting your time hanging around here. He told me you’d understand…”
I stared at him. “What?” I asked, automatically going into this thing where I pretended that I didn’t know what he was talking about. Stalling the process of understanding. Playing for time, in some pointlessly stupid kind of a way. “What are you on about, Dave?” I knew very well what he was on about however – in fact I had a sense that I knew more than I actually wanted to know. A cold feeling had come over me. A nasty chilly feeling. I started to feel unreal again, unreal and restless. This definitely wasn’t what I wanted to be hearing. I was feeling very strange. Disjointed, disconnected. I had the feeling that someone was telling me a bad joke. The type of joke that really wasn’t funny at all….